A Wood County Transportation bus heads to a pickup in Port Edwards.
It was former Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus who described the central Wisconsin region as a "ruralplex" and emphasized the ways Wausau, Marshfield, Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids can work together and become stronger as a region than any one of our cities would be on its own. We're connected, and better connections can serve to make us all stronger.
A revived discussion of a regional bus service aims to make it cheaper, easier and more accessible for people to move within the region. The topic came up about three years ago and got as far as a feasibility study that proposed a couple of different potential routes from the service - which, besides the four cities we mentioned, would also include Mosinee, Marathon and Merrill.
It was sidelined because, well, establishing the service cost money, and municipalities were already facing brutal revenue losses. So perhaps it's a signal of the recovering economy that the issue is once again on cities' radar.
Wisconsin Rapids Mayor Zach Vruwink, who was not in office when the issue was first discussed, told Daily Tribune Media that he is open to the idea, and we would echo his perspective on the issue:
"In the economy we live in today, it's heavily based on the regional economy," Vruwink said. "I'm not going to see a direct benefit in my community (from a regional bus line), but I know there are people who (travel back and forth for work)."
It's an appealing idea in a lot of ways, and we applaud leaders for thinking regionally. Many people live in Wausau and work in Stevens Point, live in Marshfield but go to Wausau to shop, or any number of configurations and reasons people routinely travel between cities.
When the topic came up in 2009 and 2010, we expressed doubts about whether there was really enough demand to justify the service. We still have those doubts. Driving is a pretty ingrained habit for a lot of people here, and the risk - and cost - of running a regional bus line that is mostly empty of passengers seems like a real one.
That's not an argument against considering the idea. It's an argument for considering it carefully, with a skeptical eye. There is real evidence that people are driving less today than they were before the recession began - and that use of public transportation is increasing especially among the young and the old. The former is a group we want to attract more of in Wisconsin Rapids. The latter is a group that is going to continue to grow here, as throughout the state.
In the meantime, there are non-government-sponsored ways we can reduce the number of cars on the road - and in the process cuts greenhouse gas emissions, infrastructure strain and stress for travelers. Some major regional employers have systems in place for carpooling and ride-sharing. If you're a commuter, it might be worth finding out whether that's an option that would work for you.
Regional transit is a good discussion to have, and we're glad to see that it's back on the agenda. There are a lot of questions yet to be answered, and it's worth exploring.